A couple of times a year I come across a book that completely sweeps me away with its originality, subject and stunning prose. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is one such book. Among the many things I loved about this incredible story is the fact that despite its brutal setting of the Chechen war and so much loss, it is still a novel about hope and faith in humanity. Marra has created characters that live in a reality that most of us will never experience and yet I felt deeply connected to many of them; I cared about them, laughed with them and wept with them, and I know they will live with me for a very long time. We were lucky enough at TheReadingRoom.com to have the opportunity to ask some questions of Anthony Marra. His thoughtful answers confirmed that he is a writer of extraordinary talent.
What is your earliest memory of reading?
I remember reading the second installment of what would be R.L.Stine’s Goosebumps series while driving somewhere with my parents. I was probably seven or eight years old. It was night and I held the book over my head so it was lit up by the headlights of the car behind us. I can’t remember where we were going, but I remember finishing the book before we arrived (spoiler: the evil plant creature dies).
What are the most powerful books that you have read, stories that stayed with you for a very long time?
Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee and Blindness by Jose Saramago are two novels I think of often and am eager to return to. Both are uprooted from any identifiable setting and absent of cultural signifiers, giving them a sense of timelessness and universality.
What inspired you to write A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and why did you choose this particular setting?
In college I spent a semester in St Petersburg, arriving shortly after the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, presumably for her reporting in Chechnya. Not far from my apartment was a metro station where Russian veterans of the Chechen wars panhandled. Chechnya was very much in the ether in Russia at the time, but like many Americans, I didn’t know the first thing about it. So I began reading books of history and journalism on Chechnya and quickly became fascinated with the region’s remarkable culture and past. It’s a place that inspired writers like Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Pushkin, and has had its fair share of larger-than-life historical figures. But the stories I found most powerful were those of ordinary civilians who found ways of retaining their humanity amid the harrowing conflict of the 1990s and 2000s.
A good novel can be a tunnel that takes you straight through the center of the earth and deposits you in the souls and psyches of people you’d never otherwise meet.
If I want to experience a time and a place, I usually turn to fiction. And so when I wanted to really get a sense of what it was to be one of these civilians, I tried to find a novel set there. To my surprise, I couldn’t find an English-language novel set in contemporary Chechnya. So this novel grew from my desire to read one like it. I came to the subject as a reader, rather than a writer. This was the book I wanted to read. It just hadn’t been written yet.
The characters in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena are simply unforgettable. Were any of them based on people you met?
While the novel is deeply rooted in Chechnya, I wanted to populate it with the kinds of characters—doctors, refugees, smugglers, orphans, informers, etc.—you’d find in most regions torn by civil conflict, be they modern Iraq and Afghanistan, Germany in 1945, or 14th-century France. These are the kind of characters whose stories rarely make it into history books but are as important, and probably more important, than the stories of generals, kings, and politicians. The cast of characters in Constellation are creatures of my imagination, molded by research. One of the books I frequently consulted when thinking about Sonja (a surgeon who nearly single-handedly runs a hospital) was Khassan Baiev’s magnificent memoir, The Oath. I was supposed to stay with him when I visited Chechnya, but unfortunately our schedules didn’t coincide. Someday, I hope to have the chance to meet him.
There is something else about your characters that make them so unforgettable; it is the depth that you gave to all of them, even the bad guys. At the end of the book I still did not like Ramzan but I could understand why he did things that he did. This complicated the story from a moral perspective, so I wonder why you took this approach?
Settings like Chechnya during this period magnify moral conflict because the consequences of one’s choices are often so severe. If Ramzan—who betrays lifelong friends to ensure his survival—were born in another country, his moral shortcomings might result in nothing more villainous than unpaid parking tickets. But because he is of this particular time and place, his ethical choices have these unimaginable results. The more I began thinking about it, the more I knew I couldn’t pass judgment on him as a character. My responsibility to him, and the reader, is to tell his story with as much empathy and honesty as I can muster. In the end, I think this approach makes his choices more devastating—not because he’s a monster, but because he’s all too human.
Humor seems to play an important role in your book, although admittedly it is often rather black and often quite absurd. Why did you give black humor such a significant role in this story?
In fiction, as in life, humor often emerges from situations that at first would seem to preclude it. We crack jokes for all sorts of reasons, one of the most powerful being that they can sap the power and pain, momentarily at least, from what would otherwise make us cry. I tend to distrust novels that don’t make room for humor, both because the total absence of humor makes for dense reading, and because novels that don’t allow for humor aren’t true to emotional reality as I understand it. Most of the Chechens I met when traveling there had razor sharp senses of humor. Often it was very dark gallows humor. Often it was directed at me (deservedly so). Often jokes would center on the very things that in other contexts might cause heartache. It seemed to prove what I’ve long suspected, that humor can be a survival strategy, and a silly joke can be serious business. For all these reasons, it seemed essential to have a strong streak of dark humor running through these pages.
There is a lot of going back and forth in your novel, and the story is presented in two separate timelines. This is a rather complex structure which works beautifully in your novel. What were you trying to achieve by choosing this type of non-linear development for your story?
I wanted to tell a story that spanned the scope of the two Chechen Wars without sacrificing the immediacy and suspense you get from story that unfolds over a shorter time frame. My solution was to weave a ten-year narrative through a story that takes place over five days. The characters in the novel are all trying to salvage the past, to pull the pieces of their lives together, and this structure embodies that essence at an architectural level, mending these individual stories into a communal whole.
I absolutely love the title of your book, and the explanation of it in your novel is not what I expected and yet it is so fitting. Can you explain the title to those who have not read your novel yet? A constellation of vital phenomena” is a medical dictionary definition of “life.” There are six vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, reproduction, growth, and adaptation—and as life is structured as a constellation of these six phenomena at its most elemental, biological level, the novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters. It seems a fitting title, both as a description of its structure and as a nod to its hospital setting and guiding concern: the persistence of life and living.
Is there a particular phrase, sentence, image or section of this book that you are especially proud of or have a special memory of creating?
A page-long sentence (by far the longest in the book) begins on page 138, and it’s one of the few sentences in the novel that I remember by date and place. I was visiting my parents in July, 2011, and working one evening on the fourth draft of the novel, when I wrote the first words of the sentence. I didn’t reach the period for several hours. In that time the book went into the mind of a character who only appears in that single sentence. I remember feeling astonished and thrilled that the book to me into this strange corner I wouldn’t have imagined had existed just one sentence earlier.
Books about war and the effects of it on civilians – in particular fiction – have been around for a very long time. What in your opinion make good stories on this subject create universal interest?
War stories have been around as long as there have been stories. The grandparents of Western literature—The Iliad and The Odyssey—are stories of going to and returning from war, and the particularly human impulse to wage war is matched by the equally human impulse to tell the stories of its fallout. There are probably many reasons these stories are of universal interest: to glimpse the mind and conscience in extreme circumstances, to witness the effects of political policy on the individual, to believe that a citizenry well read in the consequences of war is less likely to start one. For me, though, good stories on this subject have universal interest for the same reason that all good stories have universal interest—they let us experience the emotional, psychological, and moral lives of their characters. But while Constellation is set against the backdrop of war, I’m not sure I consider it war fiction. It’s a novel about surgeons rather than soldiers. It’s about ordinary people who rescue, who recover, who fail, who transcend, who might remind you of your neighbor three houses down, your friend from work, your childhood rival, or maybe even yourself.
I loved this novel. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena will be hard to follow. What are you working on next?
My family thinks I should set the next novel in Hawaii so we can all go for a research trip. If you read this, dear family, please accept my apologies and put away your swimsuits. The next book will be a collection of linked stories set in the Arctic Circle.
Thank you Anthony for this great interview, I hope it will inspire many more people to read your extraordinary novel.